Turning My House (Okay, Apartment) Into A Home

My most resonant memory of home is my mom preparing chakri in our bright red kitchen.

When we first moved into our four-bedroom colonial in a small New Jersey town, the walls were painted a very bright magenta. (Yes, all of them.) My parents eventually decided to lean into the bold color choices, one day renovating our kitchen with high-gloss IKEA cabinets that gave Campbell a run for its money.

After that, they painted the living room red and green, where it felt like Christmas all year round. And my bedroom—aquatic-themed with an underwater mural, another strange but delightful souvenir from the previous owner—was left as-is for my entire adolescence. It’s still there today.

Loud colors, modern accents, and alternating themes worked for them, but it wasn’t for me, and thus my parents’ modern aesthetic directly influenced my own ideas for my future home. Often, I would fall asleep staring at sea turtles and dolphins, envisioning the calm and more neutral space I’d someday curate in the future.

My dream house would be a multi-bedroom Spanish-style home, I had decided, with rounded arch doorways, sweeping windows, and a spacious deck overlooking a lush, immaculately manicured garden. I’d add in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves for my own personal library—complete with a hidden bookcase door because we’re fantasizing here—and a book nook with a large bay window for cuddling up and reading.

Alas, my reality is not so, at least not yet. My husband and I currently rent a modest apartment with approximately none of the aforementioned “dream” features. There isn’t much room for a reading nook, much less my hidden bookcase. And my “immaculately manicured garden” is a small patio with a few plants.

And yet, I love it all the same.

When we think about our dream homes, we think about the future. By definition, “dreams” are about aspirations and deep desires. Even when circumstances change for the better, dreams don’t necessarily become our reality; they just further evolve à la lifestyle creep.

“But what if we consider not just our future homes, but our past ones too?”

We constantly move the goalpost to what our dream home entails, going from surviving to thriving with each upgrade. We perpetually set our sights on a bigger, better place. If only we get the home office, the new flashy fridge, the two-car garage. If only.

After all, this is the era of picture-perfect Instagrams and entire TV networks dedicated to Chip and Joanna Gaines and Queer Eye makeovers. (Shout out to Bobby Berk though, for responding to my recent tweet.)

But what if we consider not just our future homes, but our past ones too? How have our spaces helped us grow and get to where we are now?

When I consider where we were just five years ago (read: a basement apartment with a caved-in ceiling for eight months), I’m inclined to think that maybe this current apartment is my dream home for this stage in my life. I could never have imagined this to be my reality back then, and that alone is such a source of joy for me.

The sprawling windows and greenery will hopefully come one day—but for now, I’m finding contentment in my current space and building my dream features within it instead of focusing solely on the future. Here’s how you can, too.

1. Think About Dream Experiences Rather Than A Dream Home

My dream home isn’t just about aesthetics. As a homebody who spends most time indoors even outside of a pandemic, I’m also asking myself: What are the experiences I want to enjoy that are worth designing around? And how can I optimize the space for my lifestyle?

“We deserve to focus on progress over perfection, living our current lives rather than fantasizing about future ones.”

I may not have a deck or a garden, but my small patio still offers the same experiences I hope to have: the chance to sit and sip coffee on slow mornings, to take in the sun on warm days, and to read or people-watch as the hours tick by.

What are the experiences you desire, dream home or otherwise? If your future self wants to host dinner parties, sleep on luxurious sheets, work out in a designated gym area, don’t just wait until you “own” to get the ball rolling.

You love what you love, and you should adapt your home for exactly that, even if scaled down. We deserve to focus on progress over perfection, living our current lives rather than fantasizing about future ones.

2. Adapt Your Vision Board

I don’t quite have space for a Beauty and the Beast library with spiraling staircases and rounded bookshelves, and I can’t exactly afford to hire a contractor to build one, especially not in a rental. So, I’m aligning my dreams with reality instead.

“Even a house constructed to your exact measurements won’t feel like a home without the things that bring you happiness and comfort.”

In this case, I incorporated an IKEA bookcase wall into our guest bedroom-slash-office space to create a mini-library—one that I can upgrade, downgrade, or take whenever we move. Best of all, I get to surround myself with the books I love, and extravagance becomes irrelevant. Four-bedroom-mansion, who?

What are the must-haves you need in a home versus the nice-to-haves? If a space covers the former, how can you incorporate the latter within your parameters? Your budget and priorities will set a foundation (it’s not a Henah piece without a pun!), but sometimes, your vision is more in reach than you think.

Here are a few tried-and-true ways to start creating your dream space, wherever you are. This Apartment Therapy guide also offers clever tips on upgrading rentals.

  • Paint or temporarily wallpaper your rooms with colors that bring you comfort. As long as you have the necessary permission and can paint it back if needed, this usually feels like an instant upgrade, whether in a rental or in your parents’ home.

  • If you own your space, invest in the “bones” and prioritize simple and affordable finishes. Add in gold knobs, paint or tile your fireplace, or swap in affordable dupes for oft-expensive pieces like flooring.

  • Consider DIY repairs for cosmetic work, where you can save on the cost of a contractor and add some oomph all at once.

  • Invest in long-term furniture or decor that you can take to any home. Our modular Burrow couch has been a staple in all our apartments.

  • Most importantly, add what brings you joy. Pastel yellow walls? A cardboard cutout of Michael B. Jordan? (I don’t blame you.) A personalized neon sign? Go for it! Even a house constructed to your exact measurements won’t feel like a home without the things that bring you happiness and comfort.

3. Practice Gratitude & Reflection

Every home has its challenges. I’ve had troublesome and wildly ineffective landlords, and before we had in-unit laundry, my now-husband and I had to lug our dirty clothes to the laundromat in a foot of snow and ice.

I think if “2016 me” could just see me now—living in a city I love with enough square footage for hosting, a small outdoor space, and her own DIY library—she would be proud of how far we’ve come. As a first-generation American, the generations before me could never have considered this to be my life, and that too is worth being grateful for.

“Those features [don’t] define your home. The love and care you’ve put into it does.”

Whether you’re splitting rent with two roommates, moving into your first studio, or putting a downpayment on your dream home, you’ve likely gotten a step closer to your idealized future. Take time to celebrate those wins, and surround yourself with reminders of all you’ve accomplished to get here.

As the saying goes, a house is not a home. Whether you live in a space with crown molding, a clawfoot bathtub, or tiled backsplash, none of those features define your home. The love and care you’ve put into it does (although, if you plan to sell your home one day, may I suggest avoiding bright magenta walls?). That is what my dream home ultimately entails—wherever I live.

Henah Velez (she/her) is an Editor at The Good Trade. She holds a Master’s in Social Entrepreneurship and is a proud Rutgers grad. Originally from NJ, Henah’s now in Santa Barbara, CA, where she loves shopping small, hanging with her pets, or traveling. Say hi on Instagram!